A visceral, fearlessly imagined future, rich with alarmingly real detail; “Blackfish City is a place you might never want to live in – but as a reader, you won’t want to leave” Adam Sternbergh, author of The Blinds
PEOPLE WOULD SAY
People would say she came to Qaanaaq in a skiff towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse. In these stories, which grew astonishingly elaborate in the days and weeks after her arrival, the polar bear paced beside her on the flat bloody deck of the boat. Her face was clenched and angry. She wore battle armor built from thick scavenged plastic.
At her feet, in heaps, were the kind of weird weapons and machines that refugee-camp ingenuity had been producing; strange tools fashioned from the wreckage of Manhattan or Mumbai. Her fingers twitched along the walrus-ivory handle of her blade. She had come to do something horrific in Qaanaaq, and she could not wait to start.
You have heard these stories. You may even have told them. Stories are valuable here. They are what we brought when we came here; they are what cannot be taken away from us.
The truth of her arrival was almost certainly less dramatic. The skiff was your standard tri-power rig, with a sail and oars and a gas engine, and for the last few miles of her journey to the floating city it was the engine that she used. The killer whale swam beside her. The polar bear was in chains, a metal cage over its head and two smaller ones boxing in its forepaws. She wore simple clothes, the skins and furs preferred by the people who had fled to the north when the cities of the south began to burn or sink. She did not pace. Her weapon lay at her feet. She brought nothing else with her. Whatever she had come to Qaanaaq to accomplish, her face gave no hint of whether it would be bloody or beautiful or both.
After the crying, and the throwing up, and the scrolling through his entire contacts list and realizing there wasn’t a single person he could tell, and the drafting and then deleting five separate long graphic messages to all his contacts, and the deciding to kill himself, and the deciding not to, Fill went out for a walk.
Qaanaaq’s windscreen had been shifted to the north, and as soon as Fill stepped out onto Arm One he felt the full force of the subarctic wind. His face was unprotected and the pain of it felt good. For five minutes, maybe more, he stood there. Breathing. Eyes shut, and then eyes open. Smelling the slight methane stink of the nightlamps; letting his teeth chatter in the city’s relentless, dependable cold. Taking in the sights he’d been seeing all his life.
I’m going to die, he thought.
I’m going to die soon.
The cold helped distract him from how much his stomach hurt. His stomach and his throat, for that matter, where he was pretty sure he had torn something in the half hour he’d spent retching. A speaker droned from a storefront: a news broadcast, the latest American government had fallen, pundits predicting it’d be the last, the flotilla disbanded after the latest bombing, and he didn’t care, because why should he, why should he care about anything?
People walked past him. Bundled up expensively. Carrying polyglass cages in which sea otters or baby red pandas paced, unhappy lucky animals saved from extinction by Qaanaaq’s elite. All of whom were focused on getting somewhere, doing something, the normal self-important bustle of ultra-wealthy Arm One. Something he despised, or did on every other day. Deaf to the sea that surged directly beneath their feet and stretched on into infinity on either side of Qaanaaq’s narrow metal arms. He’d been so proud of his indolent life, his ability to stop and stand on a street corner for no reason at all. Today he didn’t hate them, these people passing him by. He didn’t pity them.
Fill wondered: How many of them have it?
A child tapped his hip. “Orca, mister!” A pic tout, selling blurry shots of the lady with the killer whale and the polar bear. Fill bought one from the girl on obscure impulse—part pity, part boredom. Something else, too. A glimmer of buoyant wanting. Remembered joy, his childhood fascination with the stories of people emotionally melded with animals thanks to tiny machines in their blood. Collecting pedia entries and plastiprinted figures . . . and scowls, from his grandfather, who said nanobonding was a stupid, naive myth. His plastic figures gone one morning. Grandfather was sweet and kind, but Grandfather tolerated no impracticality.
On some level, the diagnosis hadn’t been a surprise. Of course he had the breaks. No one in any of the grid cities could have as much sex as he had, and be as uncareful as he was, without getting it. And he’d lived in fear for so long. Spent so much time imagining his grisly fate. He was shocked, really, to have such a visceral reaction.
Tapping his jaw bug, Fill whispered, “Play City Without a Map, file six.”
A woman’s voice filled his ears, old and strange and soothing, the wobble in her Swedish precise enough to mark her as someone who’d come to Qaanaaq decades ago.
You are new here. It is overwhelming, terrifying. Don’t be afraid.
Shut your eyes. I’m here.
Pinch your nose shut. Its smell is not the smell of your city. You can listen, because every city sounds like chaos. You will even hear your language, if you listen long enough.
There is no map here. No map is needed. No manual. Only stories. Which is why I’m here.
A different kind of terror gripped Fill now. The horror of joy, of bliss, of union with something bigger and more magnificent than he could ever hope to be.
For months he’d been obsessing over the mysterious broadcasts. An elliptical, incongruent guidebook for new arrivals, passed from person to person by the tens of thousands. He switched to the next one, a male voice, adolescent, in Slavic-accented English.
Qaanaaq is an eight-armed asterisk. East of Greenland, north of Iceland. Built by an unruly alignment of Thai-Chinese-Swedish corporations and government entities, part of the second wave of grid city construction, learning from the spectacular failures of several early efforts. Almost a million people call it home, though many are migrant workers who spend much of their time on boats harvesting glaciers for freshwater ice—fewer and fewer of these as the price of desalinization crystals plummets—or working Russian petroleum rigs in the far Arctic. Arm One points due south and Arm Eight to the north; Four is west and Five is east. Arms Two and Three are southwest and southeast; Arms Six and Seven are northwest and northeast. The central Hub is built upon a deep-sea geothermal vent, which provides most of the city’s heat and electricity.
Submerged tanks, each one the size of an old-world city block, process the city’s waste into the methane that lights it up at night. Periodic controlled ventilations of treated methane and ammonia send parabolas of bright green fire into the sky. Multicolored pipes vein the outside of every building in a dense varicose web: crimson chrome for heat, dark olive for potable water, mirror black for sewage. And then the bootleg ones, the off-color reds for hijacked heat, the green plastics for stolen water.
Whole communities had sprung up of City devotees. Camps, factions, subcults. Some people believed that the Author was a machine, a bot, one of the ghost malware programs that haunted the Qaanaaq net. Such software had become astonishingly sophisticated in the final years before the Sys Wars. Poet bots spun free-verse sonnets that fooled critics, made award winners weep. Scam bots wove intricate, compellingly argued appeals for cash. Not hard to imagine a lonely binary bard wandering through the forever twilight of Qaanaaq’s digital dreamscape, possibly glommed on unwillingly to a voice-generation software that constantly conjured up new combinations of synthesized age and gender and language and class and ethnic and national vocal tics. Its insistence on providing a physical description of itself would not be out of character, since most had been coded to try their best to persuade people that they were real—Nigerian princes, refugee relatives, distressed friends trapped in foreign lands.
Other theorists believed in a secret collective, a group of writers for whom the broadcasts were simultaneously a recruitment tool and a soapbox. Possibly an underground forbidden political party with the nefarious endgame of uniting the unwashed hordes of the Upper Arms and slaughtering the wealthier innocents who ruled the city.
On Arms One and Two and Three, glass tunnels connect buildings twenty stories up. Archways support promenades. Massive gardens on hydraulic lifts can carry a delighted garden party up into the sky. Spherical pods on struts can descend into the sea, for underwater privacy, or extend to the sky, to look down on the crowds below.
The architecture of the other Arms is less impressive. Tight floating tenements; boats with stacked boxes. The uppermost Arms boggle the mind. Boxes heaped on boxes; illicit steel stilts holding up overcrowded crates. Slums are always a marvel; how human desperation can seem to warp the very laws of physics.
Fill subscribed to the single-author theory. City Without a Map was the work of one person—one human, corporeal person. He went through phases, periods when he was convinced the Author was male and times when he knew she was female—old, young, dark-skinned, light-skinned, poor, rich . . . whoever they were, they somehow managed to get hundreds of different people to record their gorgeous, elliptical instructions for how to make one’s way through the tangled labyrinth of his city.
Not how to survive. Mere survival wasn’t the issue for the Author. The audience he or she wrote for, spoke to—they knew how to survive. They had been through so much, before they came to Qaanaaq. What the Author wanted was for them to find happiness, joy, bliss, community. The Author’s love for their listeners was palpable, beautiful, oozing out of every word. When Fill listened, even though he knew he was not part of the Author’s intended audience, he felt loved. He felt like he was part of something.
Nations burned, and people came to Qaanaaq. Arctic melt opened the interior for resource exploitation, and people came. Some of us came willingly. Some of us did not.
Qaanaaq was not a blank slate. People brought their ghosts with them. Soil and stories and stones from homelands swallowed up by the sea. Ancestral grudges. Incongruent superstitions.
Fill wiped tears from his eyes. Some were from the words, the hungry hopeful tone of voice of the last Reader, but some were still from the pain of his diagnosis. God, he was an idiot. Snow fell, wet and heavy. Projectors hidden below the grid he walked on beamed gorgeous writhing fractal shapes onto the wind-blown flurry. A child jumped, swatted at the snow, laughed at how a fish or bird imploded only to reappear as new flakes fell.
A startling, uncontrollable reaction: Fill giggled. The snow projections could still make his chest swell with childish wonder. He waved his hand through a manta ray as it soared past.
And all at once—the pain went away. His throat, his stomach. His heart. The fear and the nightmare images of twisted bodies in refugee camp hospital beds; the memory of broken-minded breaks victims wandering the streets of the Upper Arms, the songs they sang, the things they shrieked, the things they did to themselves with fingers or knives without feeling it. Every time he followed a man down a dark alley, or met one at a lavish apartment, or dropped to his knees in a filthy Arm Eight public restroom, this was the ice-shard blade that scraped at his heart. This was what he’d been afraid of.
Fill laughed softly.
When the worst thing that can possibly happen to you finally happens, you find that you are not afraid of anything.